Friday, April 22, 2016

Tyler/Alan: Detour in Memphis

As I drove north from Mobile, I knew there was only one place I could end up: Milwaukee. Now that Meghan and I were seemingly over, it only seemed right that I throw in the towel and commit to being Alan Schmidt, at least for a while. I didn't want anything to do with my own identity anyway, I had ruined it so badly. I almost welcomed the idea of wiping Tyler Blake off the slate.

Between Alabama and Wisconsin, I spent about a week in Memphis running what could generously be referred to as a "personal errand," but it could also be considered a farewell to a part of my life that I should've said goodbye to a long time ago, or maybe just indulging in a fantasy.

I found myself in a bar called Billy's. It was kind of a dive, far from Beale St. and the tourist scene. Delta blues were, of course, blaring from the jukebox, and there was a stage for a band but nobody playing tonight. I didn't mind that. I wasn't feeling festive.

The crowd as mostly old men. I saw two waitresses flitting about: a stacked blonde and a more slender African-American girl, both absolutely gorgeous, wearing the customary low-cut black top and tight jeans. Both worked their individual tables pretty much the same, giggling and smiling and bending over whenever they deemed it necessary. It was 10 PM but it might as well have been 4 PM or 3 AM for how empty it as. There was lots of empty tables, but I sat down at the bar.

"What will it be?" asked the server in that inimitable drawl. I say MGD, and, maybe unimpressed with the simplicity of my choice, she pops open a bottle, plunks it on the coaster in front of me and goes back to wiping down the bar.

"So how's Billy?" I ask when I'm sure she can hear.

She stops. "You know Billy?"

I smile, aware that as Alan, my huge moth gives me a wide, earnest grin that seems to charm people. "No, no, heh... I just assumed there was one since his name is on the sign."

"Well," she says, seemingly amused by my gag, "Billy's a she."

"Ah," I say, "Good for her." I take a swig in cheers.

"And she's my mama," the barmaid adds.

"That's interesting," I say.

She seems for a moment like she's going to go back to her cleaning, but then she stops and turns back to me. "Sorry, can I see some ID?"

"You already served me," I point out.

"Yeah, an' I'm regrettin' it," she says. "Put me at ease?" I shrug and pull my wallet out. She takes a look at my license. "Wisconsin, huh? Funny, you don't have the accent."

"What accent?" I ask.

"You know, that funny way'a talkin' they got there? You ever see Fargo?" I say sure. She says, "You sound more Alabama."

I smirk again, "Sorry, uh, I was actually just down there for a visit. Must'a picked it up."

"Well, put it back down, folk'll think you're makin' fun."

"I'll try," I said. I don't even know how to sound like I'm from Wisconsin but I figured it can't be that different from the Pittsburgh accent I occasionally picked up there, and I doubt she'll notice the distinction anyway.

"So Alan," she says, now seemingly more interested in me than her wet bar rag, "What brought you to Alabama?"

"Funeral," I say, "A distant relative. I only went out of guilt."

"I'm sorry to hear that," she says.

"Sorry enough for a free drink?"

"You said distant relative, right?"

"Darn," I say, in the most cutesy Northerner way I can. I take another sip and then tell her a story about how, after the funeral, I decided to go sightseeing. See Graceland. She scoffed. "You got a problem with The King?"

"All due respect, of course," she said, half-embarrassed, half-ready to educate me, "He was a great entertainer, really a legend, and we here in Memphis are real proud. But I always thought music is a kinda livin' thing, you know? Can't live in the past forever."

"That's the truth," I said, raising my glass to her.

I came back the next night. She asked how Graceland was, and I said it was nice enough, but I wouldn't mind having someone to show me the "real, 'living' Memphis." She scoffed a bit. "Lots'a tour guides in a city like this."

I blushed, "Sorry, I had to try. I bet guys hit on you all the time in here."

"Oh yeah, of course," she said, "Not as often as some of my co-workers, but I have a few fans."

"I wasn't really..." I backtracked, "That is, I just got out of something. I'm really not looking."

"Uh huh," she smirked, "That's what they all say."

"No, seriously," I said, and passed her my phone, which at that time featured a lengthy exchange between me and Meghan. It was mostly one-sided (hers) laying into my untrustworthiness and lack of character. I conceded most of her points and stopped defending myself.

As the barmaid scrolled through, eyes bulging out, I wondered if there was anything in there that would reveal the existence of the Inn - yes, the spell does seem to insulate outsiders against understanding its powers, but I might have to come up with and explanation for the whole setup. But the way Meg and I talk about things with each other, ewe hardly talk about the Inn even when we're talking about things that relate to it, so to the untrained eye, we were just a couple having a serious row.

"Wow," she gasped, "You do not come off well in this. What you do to piss her off so bad? Cheat?"

"I wish it was that simple," I sighed, "She is blaming me for something that I didn't do, and I realized that I'd never really have her trust, so... how could we continue?"

"That's a shame," she said, "Now, if it was me, I'd work harder at it, but I never know when to quit at these things."

"I'm the opposite," I said, "As soon as things get hard, I'm gone. It's a fault, but really, shouldn't it be easy?"

"I guess," she said. I could tell I hit a nerve. She changed the subject: "If you're looking for comfort, I might know some girls..."

"Thanks, but, really... I just need a bit of distraction. Sightseeing before I head home."

I could see the thoughts processing in her head. Finally, she concluded, "Okay, you seem harmless enough, as long as you promise you're not trying to pick me up."

"I promise. Seriously, the last thing I need right now is more drama."

The next day, we met up at a restaurant for lunch and she took me for a walk along the riverbank. I tried my best to see the city with new eyes and pretend I didn't know anything, let her give me her perspective on it. It was utterly lovely to hear her describe the city for what she loved about it.

We picked back up on the conversation about my break-up, and she told me that it got her thinking about her first big one. "It was about three years ago. It was a long time coming, but I couldn't see it. I was blinded by love, and I thought if I kept hammering away at this guy, maybe he would love me back. He wasn't really capable of that, though. Not the way I wanted to be loved. I wanted to marry him, and after four years I figured that was only right. But he couldn't commit. Didn't have it in him. And it took a long time after he was gone that I realized, why would I want to give 100% of myself to this person who could never appreciate it? I felt so stupid."

"Well, that's his loss," I could only say.

"I was so angry for so long," she said, "But that breakup was for the best. Sounds cheesy, but that's the kinda thing you only learn after some time has passed. Now I'm on the other side of things. I started seeing this new guy two months ago, and he'd already said 'I love you' after the third week and wanted to introduce me to his parents."

"You ever get the urge to run?"

"Hell no," she smiled, "It's just overwhelming. I never expected to be with a guy like this. Never expected a guy like this existed. I want to love him as much as he loves me. Sorry, I'm rambling."

"It's okay, I enjoy it," I said, "Makes me feel better about my situation. Although I wonder if maybe I'm a bit like your ex... can't appreciate a good thing."

"Naw," she said, "I think you're a nicer guy than him. And it seems like you and your ex have some pretty legit problems. Maybe you could work them out, but maybe it ended for a reason."

My "ex." It was the first time I thought of it that way.

I came to her bar again the next night. Her boyfriend was there. Handsome guy, a little older than my real self.  He's a family doctor. I have to admit they make a nice couple. But when before I left, I took the opportunity to say goodbye.

"Say, how did you know I was doing an Alabama accent when I got here?"

"Well it's a funny coincidence," she said, half smiling, "My ex was from there. Gulf coast. You sounded just like him. But I don't hear it anymore."

"Oh, I hope that didn't bring back any unpleasant memories..."

"Naw," she said, "I mean, if he was here right now you'd probably have to watch I didn't pick up any sharp objects, but there's still some positive associations too."

I left, tipped her well, and went to my car to map out the route to Milwaukee.

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Friday, April 08, 2016

Tyler/Alan: It's a long story.

Here and Now...

It's rainy out this morning, but I a stray bolt of sunshine breaks through the window and hits me in the eye. I roll over and take a look at the clock - 7:05 AM. I didn't get to sleep until probably 2 last night. Groggy and disoriented, I roll over and look at her, murmuring "Meg..." as I do so. She doesn't budge. If I drape my arm around her, she might wake up and be ticked at me that roused her. For half a moment I try to roll over and fall back asleep, but then I realize this is pointless. My stomach is grumbling. So I do what any self-respecting boyfriend does in this situation, I get up and make some breakfast - cooking here is pretty pleasurable since I've spent the last few weeks setting the kitchen up to my liking, and it's no longer what I do for a living. I crack the eggs and make what I consider to be a perfect over-easy, while the bacon sizzles in a separate skillet. She's not really an early riser, but I'm hoping the scent of breakfast will inspire her to get up.

She told me that before me, she really only liked eggs in an omelette with a ton of fresh ingredients. I feel like I've shown her that there's good food you can make on a budget.

I've got the meal prepared and set on a tray to bring to her bedside, when she appears in the doorway. "Mmm, is that for me?" she moans hungrily, stretching her arms over her head so that her shrunken gray tee-shirt rides up her abdomen, exposing her underwear and middrift. This is definitely on purpose for my benefit.

"I thought breakfast in bed would be nice," I smile, offering her the tray.

"Uh huh," she says, taking a piece of bacon. "I hope you're ready to vacuum the crumbs off the sheets, then."

I sigh, "Table it is, then."

The kitchen table has a nice view of the Milwaukee skyline and Lake Michigan behind it, the sun kinda-sorta rising behind rainclouds. With every bite she compliments my cooking, when really it's just the basic skillset from working at one diner after another for a decade. I'm not exactly Top Chef. But I can do eggs.

As she finishes her (probably over-acted for my benefit) foodgasm, she looks over to me and notes, "Did I dream it, or did you call me Meg this morning?"

I'm a little embarrassed but I have nothing to feel guilty about. "I must've been half-asleep, sorry," I say.

"Well, you're with me now," she says, walking over to my side of the table to plant a kiss on my lips.

"I know, Kitty." I say, mustering up as much affection as I can feel in this moment. She knows she's a rebound, and I am for her too, but neither of us care. We're making the best of a pretty rotten situation.

Alabama

Things have changed a lot since the last time I posted here. That was earlier this year, when I was living in Vermont and deeply in love with Meghan. I was happy. She was happy, I'm pretty sure. We seemed to have a future ahead of us, even if it was a bit murky. But you never know how shaky these things are until they really get put to the test.

We were a good pair. We fought now and again - I'm not a perfect person or a saint. I could get drunk and rant about how much I disliked living with her roommate, Gene. I could quit my job on a whim, which was always disappointing to her because she preferred stability and continuity (I never went without one for long, I promise.) I could be a slob or break plans on short notice. I was chaos and she was order. I could even complain a bit about how uptight she could be about our living situation, but all in all I tried to be appreciative and respectful and courteous and work as hard as I ever have at anything to make that relationship work. We understood each other in the way that only people who have been through something as crazy as what we have, and she seemed to have a lot of patience for me, all things considered. More than I deserved.

I wanted it to work because I waited a year for it, suffered through the humiliations of being a teenage girl and watching her with both Wade and Mikal from a distance, knowing that just the possibility that she might return my feelings would make the whole ordeal worth it. She never promised anything, but when we made our return to the Inn, the stars kind of aligned for us. If we had rigged it, we couldn't have gotten a better hand. Someone up there loved me...

But since there were no promises and no guarantees I wanted to show I was worth taking a chance. I wanted to become better and show her I was worthy of her love. And for a while I was. But thinking now, I suspect there's things about me that were always going to sabotage the relationship. In another life, maybe it would have been perfect.

What's this got to do with Alabama? Well. That's her fault. I didn't want to go. I made it my life's mission to never step foot in the state of Alabama again. In fact I was done with pretty much the whole South if I could help it. It was nothing but trouble for me my whole life.

Except that one time last year when I did go back to Alabama, and met the man who stole my face.

I remember, sitting there, across the table from him and feeling so helpless, so small. I was in Lauren's little body, so he dwarfed me. He wore this shit-eating grin, trying to cut a deal with me for more money than I could have scared up babysitting and mowing the lawn. It felt perverse and demoralizing, and - as I alluded earlier, humiliating. It was one of a few times during that year that I cried - outright bawled  - at my situation, and pitied myself. But what could I do? There were forces at play here much bigger than me. As my dad would say, sometimes you just suck the shit.

So why did I go back? Because I was guilted into it. Because my sister Carrie spent a year living as Meghan, and did such a nice job that they became long-distance BFF's, so when Carrie asked her to ask me to come visit home, because our father was on his deathbed, I had basically no choice in the matter.

My relationship with my father is... complicated. Or I should say it was complicated, because he's not my father anymore, both because as far as the world is concerned Tyler Blake is someone else, and because he's gone now.

But since I still carry some baggage from it, I guess it always will be complicated. He was a tough, drunk, Vietnam Vet who was not real easy to live with even at the best of times. The user-friendly version is that I was never who he wanted me to be - I had two older, more athletic, traditionally "Good Ole Boy" brothers. The three of them were Duck Dynasty without the beards and money. I was the smart-ass youngest son. We all caused trouble at various times - staying out late, drinking, vandalizing, screwing around with girls in the gas station bathroom and such - but they had the good fortune of doing those things while also playing football and hunting. I hated all of that, their whole lifestyle, their attitude. I wanted out from an early age. And I also had the bad luck to have my mother die of cancer when I was a toddler. I was just too big a problem for him to handle on his own. He hit the bottle, went on disability and lost what little we had.

By the time my dad re-married and Carrie was born, I was well on my way to being the black sheep. I was a lot closer in age to Carrie than I was to my older brothers, so I bonded with her... but I guess the difference was that my dad got his new lease on life when he met Carrie's mom (who is a very nice woman, but has since divorced him) so she got a "good dad." He still treated me like a whipping boy, but I never resented her for being Daddy's little girl. One of life's little shit-sucking moments. I knew it wasn't her fault, and she was a good sister to me.

So with Pa on death's door, Carrie was having an emotional meltdown - she had just gotten back from a year in the North, so she was realizing she had basically lost her last precious moments with him. This was it. And no matter what my feelings were for that man, or my home region, or anything, I would be a terrible brother to let that get in the way of consoling my sister.

Meg and I sat in the back of the funeral. My brothers and their families were up front, They gave cursory attention to Carrie but had their own broods to worry about. I didn't talk to any of them - we get along decently now but it's not like I can go catch up with them. But whenever someone did ask who I was and why I was at this funeral, I claimed to be the son of some long-forgotten acquaintance from one of our many moves around the county, paying my respects.

My Skeletons

The event that led to my breakup with Meg happened after the funeral. Once everything had cleared, we met up for drinks with Carrie and started seriously catching up and talking about old times, telling anecdotes, trying to remember the positive memories I had of my father, etc etc.

Then the subject turned to... him. You know, Fake-Tyler. And the air got sucked right out of the room.

"What if he had shown up?" Meghan asked. None of us thought it was likely, and as far as I knew the man who had occupied my body the last time I saw it had moved on later in the summer - supposedly he was paid to do so.

"I would'a made him regret it," I said. Whether or not I can back that up, beanpole that Alan Schmidt is, I'm glad I don't have to. Meg looked mortified that I would even consider it.

"Truth is, I don't even know where he went," Carrie sighed, "After the hospital, I mean."

That brought the conversation the an abrupt halt. Meg's eyebrow raised: "The hospital? What hospital?"

"You didn't tell her about it?" my sister asked.

"Tell me what?"

"No, I... didn't really see the point."

I won't attempt to transcribe the exact conversation, because I would hate to misrepresent Meghan (or myself) so here's the summary.

What Carrie was talking about is that, at some point last summer, the man in my old body was attacked outside a bar and beaten within inches of his life. What little information we had at the time wound its way from the person in Carrie's body, to Carrie, to me, and I was still so shaken up from my meeting with him that I kept it to myself. He was beaten so badly that he spent a month or more convalescing and rehabilitating, and then disappeared. Maybe he made his trip to the Inn, maybe he didn't.

But I could see the thought process behind Meg's eyes as she analyzed the information and posed a simple question: "But... why?" It couldn't just be a coincidence, a random act of violence. Maybe it had something to do with the Inn, with these people who paid him to run off with my body? "Who would do that?"

"Some old friends of yours, I assume," Carrie said flatly.

I bristled, angry that she would bring it up in front of Meghan, knowing full well how hard I tried to put that part of my life behind me. Meghan knew I wasn't exactly a saint, but I never really wanted her to find out exactly how many skeletons I had in my closet.

Through gritted teeth, I admitted, "It's possible I owe a lot of money... or Tyler Blake does... to some people who... break legs. Among other things."

I couldn't look Meghan in the eye at that point, but I could see from the edge of my vision that she was hurt, shocked, aghast at my revelation of just how deep my shadows ran. I continued, hoping not to dig myself deeper, "There's a part of my life that... it was a long time ago, and I've moved past it, but... some people have long memories." That, more than my own negative associations or baggage, is why I never wanted to go back to the South in general, and Mobile in particular.

My guess is that Fake Tyler had no idea, or else he would have stayed clear of Mobile. I have no idea if that's something the people who paid him - The "Agency," I assume - would have known about that. It's not like there's a Local Gang Newsletter they can subscribe to. But apparently they have enough resources to have this international extortion network, so who knows what they know.

Meghan fell silent and we called it a night shortly after that. When we got to the hotel, there was still an awkward silence, and whenever Meghan would look at me there was this confused searching look in her eyes, like she didn't know who I was anymore... or like she was just finding out.

She told me she didn't understand why I didn't tell her about this: about my activities (most of which took place more than 5 years ago) or that I knew that had happened to the Fake Tyler. I told her I didn't think it mattered, and she asserted that it did - that if I was in danger, then so was she.

"But I'm not in danger - Tyler Blake is."

"What if these people come looking for you, the Agency?"

"Why would they?"

She sighed heavily. "Tyler, be honest with me. Did you have anything to do with this?"

"With what?"

"With the attack. Did you... I don't know... tell some people where they could find him? Because you were angry you weren't getting your body back?"

"Meghan, what kind of person do you think I am?"

"I don't know. That's not an answer."

"No, of course not. That was just a hazard of being Tyler Blake that he was unprepared for."

"I don't believe you."

"Well, you should."

"I don't know what you're capable of!" she said tearfully. "I don't know you!"

"You know me, Meghan."

"Why did you get so lucky, Ty? You ended up in this handsome young man's body, and... what are the odds? Did you make this happen?"

"Meghan..."

"Are you even going to give Alan his body back?"

"Meghan, don't talk like that." I was insulted.

Tears were streaming down her face. She seemed exasperated. I was angry at her for the accusations - they seemed to be coming out of nowhere, even if months later I can admit I don't exactly look good in this scenario. I felt attacked.

But I still loved her. I still wanted to comfort and reassure her. I sat next to her on the bed.

"Of course I'm giving Alan his body back. No matter what. I'm not... I would never take from someone like that."

She sniffled. "And then what? Just hope you get a lucky draw again? Or you become a married man, or a woman, or a child... the possibilities are endless, and that's assuming nobody is out to get you.. It was so easy last time to wait, to not let myself get attached to the idea of being with you because I had no idea how it would all turn out. I feel like an idiot for being with you. For believing this could turn out well. This was fucking doomed."

"Don't say that," I growled, "Every second of it was worth it... worth the risk, the stress, the heartache. And if you love me, you'll see it through to the end with me."

She was quiet a long time, thinking, until she finally said, "I don't think I can. Not now, not knowing what I know about you now. Thinking you're this sort of person."

"I'm telling you, it's not the way you think it is."

"I wish I could believe that."

It sounded like her mind was all made up in the subject, so I started to gather my things.

She said, "You don't have to go right now."

Yeah, I did.

"Do you want to come back to Vermont and get your things?"

I didn't need them.

I went to a car rental place and just started driving. In the morning there were numerous text messages I didn't feel like answering. By then I had reached Memphis. I stayed there for a week or so to get my bearings before I made the decision to make my way almost as far north as north goes... Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hometown of Alan Schmidt.

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